Israel pounds Gaza as truce talks resume

General |Author: AFP | May 9, 2024, Thursday @ 08:02| 1792 views

Israeli security forces demolish the unrecognized bedouin community of Wadi al Khalil comprised of 300 individuals in the southern Negev desert, near the town of Hura on May 8, 2024. Israeli authorities said the demolition of the community was to clear space for highway expansion. (Photo by Oren Ziv / AFP)

Israel bombarded Rafah on Wednesday as the military said ground troops conducted "targeted raids" in the southern Gaza city's east, with negotiations to halt the seven-month war underway in Cairo.

Israel has defied international objections and sent tanks into Rafah, which is crowded with Palestinian civilians sheltering near the Egyptian border, seizing early Tuesday a crossing that is the main conduit for aid into the besieged territory.

The White House condemned the interruption to humanitarian deliveries, with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin later confirming reports that Washington had paused a shipment of bombs last week after Israel failed to address concerns over its long-threatened Rafah operation.

The Israeli military said Wednesday it was reopening another major aid crossing into Gaza, Kerem Shalom, as well as the Erez crossing.

But the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said the Kerem Shalom crossing -- which Israel shut after a rocket attack killed four soldiers on Sunday -- remained closed.

Late Wednesday, the army said a soldier was lightly wounded when Kerem Shalom was again targeted by rockets.

It came after a night of heavy Israeli strikes and shelling across Gaza.

AFPTV footage showed Palestinians scrambling in the dark to pull survivors, bloodied and caked in dust, out from under the rubble of a Rafah building.

"We are living in Rafah in extreme fear and endless anxiety," said Muhanad Ahmad Qishta, 29.

"Places the Israeli army claims to be safe are also being bombed," he told AFP.

Displaced Gazan Marwan al-Masri, 35, said "the streets are empty" in Rafah's western areas, and "life has completely ceased".

In devastated northern Gaza, Al-Ahli hospital said it received the bodies of seven family members killed in a strike on an apartment in Gaza City.

The Israeli military said in a statement that its "troops are conducting targeted raids on the Gazan side of Rafah crossing in the eastern part of Rafah".

A later statement said that Hamas naval commander Mohammed Ahmed Ali was killed in an air strike "in the past day". Hamas did not immediately comment.

- 'Catastrophic' -

An emergency doctor working in Rafah and nearby Khan Yunis said that with humanitarian access compromised, the health situation was "catastrophic".

"The smell of sewage is rife everywhere," said the doctor, James Smith. "It's been getting worse over the course of the last couple of days."

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday that hospitals in southern Gaza had only "three days of fuel left" because of the border closures.

"Without fuel all humanitarian operations will stop."

Meanwhile the Hamas-run government media office said health workers had uncovered at least 49 bodies from Gaza City's Al-Shifa hospital, the territory's largest which was devastated by two weeks of fighting in March.

The bodies were in "a third mass grave", where some 30 corpses were found last month, said Motassem Salah, head of the hospital's emergency department.

There was no immediate comment from Israel, which accuses Hamas militants of operating out of hospitals -- a charge denied by the Palestinian group.

The war was sparked by Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel in response vowed to crush Hamas and launched a military offensive that has killed at least 34,844 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Militants also took about 250 hostages. Israel estimates 128 of them remain in Gaza including 36 who officials say are dead.

Talks involving Qatari, US and Hamas delegations aimed at agreeing a ceasefire were ongoing Wednesday in Cairo, said Al-Qahera News, which is linked to Egyptian intelligence.

It note that there were "points of contention" during the discussions, but also reported some "convergence" without elaborating.

A senior Hamas official said the latest round of negotiations would be "decisive".

Hamas "insists on the rightful demands of its people" said the official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly on the negotiations.

In Jerusalem, CIA director Bill Burns met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the "possibility of Israel pausing the operation in Rafah in exchange for hostage releases", an Israeli official said also on condition of anonymity.

The Hamas official had previously warned the talks would be Israel's "last chance" to free the hostages still in militants' hands.

- Incursion condemned -

Qatar, which hosts Hamas leaders and has been mediating between the two sides, appealed "for urgent international action to prevent Rafah from being invaded and a crime of genocide being committed".

Palestinian analyst Mkhaimar Abusada said Israel's seizure of the Rafah crossing could be an attempt to create new facts on the ground, or a bid to "sabotage the truce talks".

Israel's seizure of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing came after Hamas said it had accepted a truce proposal -- one Israel said was "far" from what its own negotiators had previously agreed to.

Netanyahu has described the Rafah operation as "a very important step" in denying Hamas "a passage that was essential for establishing its reign of terror".

Washington's decision to hold back last week a shipment of more than 3,500 heavy-duty bombs, according to a senior US official, was the first time the Biden administration acted on a warning to Israel that US policy on Gaza would depend on how Israel treats civilians.

"We paused one shipment of high-payload munitions" for Israel but have not "made a final determination on how to proceed with that shipment," Austin told US lawmakers on Wednesday.

© Agence France-Presse